College journalists gain real-world experience from SPJ

Friday, October 6, 2006

The number of college students graduating each year with a degree related to journalism has increased by more than six-fold since the 1970s, according to the U.S. Department of Education. With such a large number of budding journalists — 70,968 at last count — seeking to join the ranks each year, organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists are stepping up to help train these young reporters, editors, photographers and bloggers on campus.

SPJ is the nation’s largest journalism organization with more than 9,500 members, about 2,100 of whom are students. There are currently 238 SPJ chapters active on college campuses across the United States, up from 184 in 1984.

Every campus chapter has certain responsibilities, such as conducting meetings eight times each year and sponsoring programs that deal with issues such as freedom of information and media ethics, though some take their mission beyond what is expected.

For example, the Ohio University chapter in Athens conducted a statewide audit of public access to records at state universities last year. Students conducting the audit were denied roughly 60% of the records they requested.

Mead Loop, SPJ vice president of campus chapter affairs, named the Ohio University chapter the SPJ campus chapter of the year. “Some of the work they did for freedom of information was cited by the attorney general of Ohio,” Loop said. “It was journalism on a much more significant scale than you would expect from college students.”

Other chapters have also become active in professional journalistic struggles. Charles Davis, SPJ chapter adviser at the University of Missouri at Columbia, said, “Being a local part of a national organization means that the students are involved in something bigger, and so they feel a part of a national effort at, for example, pushing for a federal shield law, or strengthening FOI laws at the federal, state and local level.”

“We expect our student chapters to promote ethical journalism, diversity and a free press,” said Neil Ralston, an SPJ campus adviser at large and an assistant professor of journalism at Western Kentucky University at Bowling Green. “But there are limitless ways they can do that, from something as simple as mailing out copies of our ethics code to local media to something as complicated as sponsoring a weeklong series of programs on free speech and a free press.”

For students, the benefits of joining the SPJ are numerous: networking, education, conferences, exposure to their field and exclusive job and internship opportunities. Many chapters organize programs to educate students about getting jobs and how to deal with issues they will face as professional journalists. Résumé-writing workshops, career fairs, and tours of local news stations are examples of the services that the campus chapter at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg offers its members.

Opportunities for networking abound. SPJ student members are given the chance to mingle with, glean advice from and establish relationships with potential future employers and colleagues at regional and national conferences and workshops.

John Patrick, a campus representative to the SPJ board of directors and a student at California's University of La Verne, said that “if you want to put yourself in front (of) people who are in a position to hire, SPJ mixers, conferences and conventions are the place to do it.”

Patrick said networking was just one of the many benefits to being a student member of SPJ. “The information obtained … is instrumental in helping so many students peer out of the education bubble and into the domain of the working press.”

Loop emphasized the importance of exposure to the real world of journalism with its conflicts and constitutional battles that the SPJ offers its students: “This is their first contact with some of those great debates and issues.”

There are tangible benefits to being a student member of the SPJ, as well. Sydney McIntosh, president of Virginia Tech’s campus SPJ chapter, notes that SPJ has a weekly newsletter, a monthly magazine, programs, internships and regional and national conventions.

A primary goal of SPJ on campus is “to broaden their understanding of the roles and responsibilities of journalists in a free society,” said Ernest Wiggins, adviser to the University of South Carolina at Columbia’s chapter. Often the SPJ expands on its goal to educate and helps to protect the freedoms guaranteed to journalists in the U.S. Constitution.

Student journalists are frequently the target of censorship and the SPJ provides resources and support for its members when they face these issues. Ralston said students face “a wide variety of problems, including censorship attempts, disrespect from other faculty and administrators, threats by student government and a public that is woefully ignorant about journalism and student journalists.”

In some cases the SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund has been used to aid students in litigation. In June 2006, the fund gave $1,000 to the student newspaper at Michigan State University when staffers had problems getting the university to release a report about a campus assault. The State News is using the funds to appeal a judge's decision blocking release of the report. In 2001, the fund gave the Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper at the University of Florida, $1,000 in an ultimately unsuccessful fight against a state law that limited public access to autopsy photographs.

The SPJ, which began on the campus of DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., in 1909, also occasionally commissions task forces to deal with serious censorship issues on individual campuses. A task force typically includes journalists with no previous exposure to the issue, along with teachers and students from other campuses who go to the campus and conduct an investigation.

“They gather documents, look over news accounts and collect any pertinent legal papers. Then they get together and write a report on the matter,” said Ralston.

The report is submitted to the national SPJ board, which can take action to censure a school. The SPJ membership can also take action.

According to Loop, the most recent task force investigated the removal of the newspaper adviser at Ocean County College in Toms River, N.J. Last April the task force determined that the college president was wrong to dismiss the Karen Bosley, who was reinstated by college trustees in late August.

“A lot of newspaper advisers are targets. Very few (colleges) censor in the traditional outright form, but removing advisers can have that same chilling effect,” Loop said.

As the SPJ continues to grow and more students look to journalism as a career, the right to a free press enters more frequently into daily discourse. The SPJ attempts to bridge the gap between theory and practice, educating and aiding its members to establish, as its mission states, “the perpetuation of a free press as the cornerstone of our nation and our liberty.”

Melanie Bengtson is an intern at the First Amendment Center and a sophomore studying developmental politics at Belmont University.